Do you love belting out to your favourite singer while driving, but only in an empty car? Do you feel a bit sick just thinking about getting up on stage in a room full of strangers? If so, then you know how I feel about hill running: I get hill stage fright!
For me, entering the Salomon Ring of Steall Skyrace, a 29km spectacular in the Scottish mountains, feels a bit like picking a Whitney Houston number at a packed-out karaoke. Running in the hills in Scotland can be both wonderful and magical. You have those days where you feel strong, get that alone time to think and, if you’re lucky with the weather, some killer views. But racing can be a different beast! It’s the mental element I struggle with, and I often find that little insecurities start to creep in. The climbs are the worst, and I worry that all the spectators - or even other runners - will be watching me, slogging uphill, thinking: “she’s bitten off more than she can chew.”
That’s not to say I don’t enjoy racing. It has its upsides – nods of solidarity from other runners, eating your best snack at the top of a climb, and even on those particularly gruelling races there’s always the promise of its eventual, rewarding end.
The race is based on the classic Ring of Steall ridge walk, which starts in Glen Nevis. Taking in a fun (terrifying) wobble across the cable bridge by Steall Hut, you then begin the long ascent up to An Gearanach. This is followed by a handsome undulating ridge walk which incorporates three more Munros before you finally reach the unrelenting descent back to the valley and a riverside meander to the car park.
The Salomon Ring of Steall Skyrace follows a slightly different route. Starting from the race centre in Kinlochleven, you climb up to the left side of the Steall horseshoe and then across to the Devil’s Ridge to Sgùrr a' Mhàim before plummeting into the valley. Heading up to the Steall meadow and the falls and then back up the many zig zags to An Gearanach, you descend once more down the initial climb to finish in town. Double the climb = double the fun, right?
I’ve had two previous experiences on the Ring of Steall. The first was walking the aforementioned route with my boyfriend on one of the most incredible days Scotland had witnessed in September (or so, by my account). It had that last-days-of-summer feeling, and the all-day sunshine made for glorious views in every direction. The Devil’s Ridge seemed like a complete misnomer and we were surprised to find ourselves finished well before 4 that afternoon.
My second time on the Ring of Steall was last year, the day after running the Salomon Mamores VK. With tired legs and inclement weather, a few of us set off from the Kinlochleven side, up the first ascent used in the Steall race. In the wind and sleet, the Devil’s Ridge felt much less trivial and a brief foray to the top of Sgùrr a' Mhàim was all the weather warranted.
If you merge those two experiences together, I’ve done the whole route before. So…what’s the big deal?
With the race looming and my excitement rising, there are still a few things I'm nervous about. The first is my pacing (isn’t it always?). It’s a long race with the hardest climb coming about half way through. Can I resist the temptation to run at the starting line? I will need to conserve my energy here without feeling like onlookers will worry for me before I have even begun.
I’m most nervous for the descent from Sgùrr a' Mhàim. This is the first big descent of the race and is a vertical kilometre in reverse. I'm relatively confident in my descending, but I still haven’t quite wrapped my head around how people can really run this section! I know just how unrelenting it is, and this time I have no car to look forward to, but instead another VK with jelly legs. Nevertheless, it will be a true test of my ability.
And lastly, what if I’m just too slow? I have faith that I am physically capable of finishing the race, but what about finishing in time? The race has a time limit of 9 hours and by some crude guestimations I am aiming to finish in around 7 hours (for reference, last year’s ladies winner finished in a cracking 3:46:28).
Now, I’m clearly not running to win; there will be some incredible competitors leading the way. I’m running for the challenge, to see if I can finish, and for the sheer joy of it, but I would also quite like to finish before the last person crosses the line…I suppose there’s only one way to find out! I’ve just got to grab that mic on Saturday and go for those high notes!
You can follow Emily's time at the race on our Instagram and Twitter accounts over the weekend, or follow the whole event at http://www.skylinescotland.com/ring-of-steall-skyrace/ .